With so much of the core of Italian cities preceding the creation of Italy by several centuries, it is perhaps inevitable that for all their cosmetic similarities, every one has a rather unique look and feel. Siena, however, perennially identified as the archetypal Gothic city, still struck me as a particularly singular place. Plague and foreign invasion meant that an important capital city of 100,000 was reduced within a few years to an insignificant market town of 8,000, giving the city the San Gimignano effect a thousandfold. Walk in from the bus terminus and you will begin to sense it right away; spend any length of time in the town and you will probably come to think that the unusual layout of the town, as much as the Assassin’s Creed look of the buildings, marks Siena out as extraordinary. Think of the famous, distinctively shell-shaped Piazza del Campo as a spider, and the rest of Siena is its web. The streets shoot out in rays from this magnificent centre, and it feels as if the whole of Siena consists of horseshoe-shaped corsos reflecting the shape of the Campo, like outward ripples; a sort of Gothic Amsterdam. The streets incline slightly downhill towards the Campo and if you go for an aimless stroll you will inevitably gravitate there as if the town were a giant pinball board (with the Campo’s tourist-trap pavement cafés perhaps acting as the flippers sending you rushing back out). Because of this, Siena might just have been the perfect place for us to endure a Dantean odyssey and be taught a salutary lesson…
This summer, the posters proclaiming the terminal illness of Bergamo really drove home the message that my airbnb habit is killing the cities I love, by significantly reducing the available housing stock and displacing residents. There can be other perils to the sharing economy. As Brian Sewell quits southern Tuscany in his Grand Tour series, he makes a point of staying a night in the cold, dilapidated remains of a Medici hunting lodge used by our C18th counterparts. Here he demonstrates that the Grand Tourists’ most prized possessions were their leather blankets, as these alone would remain impervious to bedbugs. I did not bargain for first-hand experience of the benefits of leather blankets, but in Siena we got it.
The same bus route that took us to San Gimignano takes us from there to Siena. As mentioned previously, the countryside is ridiculously lovely until the built-up Poggibonsi and Colle Val d’Elsa (although the latter has a quite intriguing centro storico perched on a small hilltop). Past these, the second half of the journey is on the Florence-Siena motorway but still offers gorgeous views of forested hills, plus a glimpse of the high circular walls around tiny Monteriggio. At the edge of Siena we begin our ascent and have a astonishing view of the old town before us, with the huge Palazzo Pubblico at its centre at the bold stripes of the Duomo at its summit.
By dint of gravity all roads in Siena tend to lead to the famous Campo, which is positioned rather like the plughole in a sink. I always thought it was meant to be seashell-shaped as a nod to St James but it apparently represents the protective skirts of the Virgin, who is a very big deal in Siena, its nine segments representing the democratic Council of Nine that ran the Republic. We are delighted to find that our flat is bright, very spacious, and just a few metres behind the Campo with a view of the tower. After a stroll to get our bearings, and pick up lunch from the posh deli in the Campo, we nap for an hour (on top of the sheets and fully clothed, thank God) and awake to find a dozen or so bedbugs have emerged from the mattress. When I try flicking them away, they are so full of blood (probably ours) that they simply explode. The place wasn’t unclean or anything, but New York City is reputed to have been taken over by the fuckers, and two guests before us there was a girl from California… Having worked out that bedbugs are ‘cimici’, we text our host the bad news and get outta there.
For peace of mind, I normally organise my trips to exacting detail and it’s a little frightening to be homeless at 5pm on a Friday night in Siena’s peak season. The guide book tells us there is a hotel-booking kiosk for tourists opposite San Domenico, so we haul our luggage up there. The girls on duty explain that the Campo concert that night is a memorial for Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student whose recent murder was covered up by the Egyptian army, and unless we are happy to stay a long bus ride out of town, it will be like trying to find a room on Palio night. With increasing desperation we make repeated visits to the university courtyard and its intermittent wifi, and put in for other flats which are either booked up, or have hosts that are understandably not glued to their emails on a Friday night. A few tears of frustration later, we eventually find a not-too-eyewateringly-priced hotel outside the city walls and book it for the night.
Keep walking after you pass behind the Campo and you will eventually exit the city walls at the Porta Romana, a vast old gate with Medici balls (the last building before the gate is marked ‘Ospedale Pscicologico’ and it’s tempting to ask if we can get ourselves sectioned). The hotel is a further five minutes down the road, and of course the hotelier ticks us off for not staying in hotels in the first place and gives a lecture about airbnb’s proclivity for tax avoidance. Our behaviour is, of course, equivalent to asking a black cab, “Could you rescue me? I’ve been stranded by Uber”. We’re too stressed to want dinner but could certainly use a drink, so it’s back into town for a couple of drinks and pizza from a very popular take-away, where by being as pushy, shouty and assertive as everyone else we manage to nab the last margherita before they go ‘integrale’, which I think meant wholemeal flour. Siena was quite busy with the concert but had disappointingly few nightlife options, it could be that people don’t hit the bars until around midnight. In our cramped hotel room, we scour booking.com, find just one available flat in central Siena that isn’t a distant agriturismo, and nab it.
The hotel wasn’t palatial, but it was a sight better than being left on the streets all night and its position outside the city walls gives it a pastoral charm. We wake to the rising sun streaming over the Sienese hills, which makes for a spectacular combination. Breakfast is included and served in the garden, providing the very retro experience of ham, cheese, rolls, pastries, weak coffee, yoghurts, and tinned fruit which transports us back to the pre-airbnb days when our holidays were much shorter. We make a quick survey of the grounds, which according to the hotelier contain pheasants and wild boar, although all we can see is a bloke lighting fires.
Our new flat is in an area we are yet to visit, around the corner from the Duomo, so we drag our luggage back into Siena and cross the southern fringes of the town. Having accepted our booking at around midnight, the owner very kindly agrees to let us check-in at 11am. It costs a bit more than your standard budget apartment, but does compensate for the nightmare start by being a million times nicer; a big, well-furnished place with a view onto the Duomo campanile, and the kind of home in which you could happily spend the rest of your life. Better still, by complete coincidence the owner turns out to be one of the three people I’ve been told to look up and say hello to by a friend who lived in Siena for a few years. Invigorated by the possibility of a new start, we head out to investigate the Duomo and its famous sculpture-heavy facade; the piazza is rather busy by this stage on a Saturday lunchtime. They are selling a Duomo ticket for €7, or a ticket to the Duomo + the five or six associated parts of the complex for €15 (the joint ticket appears to be €7 in the winter months). All the other tourists are in the Duomo-only queues, so we walk straight up for the joint ticket. Nice and easy, although disconcertingly the ticket booth has a mirror in place of a glass panel. Next to the ticket office is part of an aborted attempt to hugely expand the Duomo, already as big as cathedrals come. Siena and Florence tried to outdo one another like the Beach Boys and Beatles, and when Florence completed their iconic Duomo Siena embarked on the attempt to build a larger one still, using the existing cathedral as simply the transept and adding on a much larger nave (after walking around the Duomo, my brain cannot configure how large this building would have been), but the Black Death reached Siena during the early stages, Siena’s population never recovered, and the project was not to be.
We start with the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which contains a lot of the treasures from the Duomo kept aside for safekeeping. The original rose window and sculptures from the facade are in here, the ones on the facade being replicas. The statues, having been designed to be viewed from a much lower viewpoint, are quite elongated and seem weirdly expressionist when seen eye-to-eye. Most are saints and Biblical figures, but the chap with the scroll is labelled as Aristotle. The very devil-may-care notion of sticking Aristotle on the front of your cathedral shows why people make such a song and dance about humanism. There is also a marble wall inscribed with the date that Charles V of Spain entered Siena; this event ended the Republic of Siena, so little wonder they didn’t want it on the front of their Duomo any more.
On the next floor is a major painting by the stained glass artist; a 1311 Maestà, albeit a step up from the one seen in San Gimignano, by Duccio. This took four years to complete, was at the time the most expensive painting ever commissioned, and the whole city ground to a standstill when it was ceremonially transported to the Duomo. The smaller panels and the reverse have been detached from the main panel and distributed across the walls of a room with heavy blackout curtains. It’s very hard to imagine the impact the painting had 700 years ago, given all the things that came to pass in the interim, but when you compare it to Byzantine predecessors there is a definite softness in the faces, made all the more noticable by the thematic similarities (the subject matter, and the patterned comfy cushion the Virgin sits on). The panels that have been kept with the Maestà depict the last days of Christ.
There are a few more rooms of bric-a-brac; ecclesiastical stuff, holy bones in ornate reliquaries, and a crude painting called ‘The Madonna with the Big Eyes’, as well as a long queue to climb up the wall of the unfinished Duomo nave (which I would not have joined had I known how long it was, but once you’ve waited a certain length of time, you don’t want to write off the investment). Groups of 20 are allowed up for 15 minutes or so, and ascend a narrow spiral staircase for astonishing views looking down on the Duomo’s dome and tower, as well as being high enough to see Siena’s city limits and the incredibly unspoilt surrounding countryside. It is quite an experience to be looking into the Campo and see all the fields beyond the city at the same time, which the Sienese are to be appluaded for not having filled with suburban sprawl, or with the glum apartment blocks that blight most of the Adriatic coast. Not recommended for sufferers of vertigo.
After a wonderful meats ‘n’ cheeses platter, of a quality you just cannot get in England, at Prosciutteria Pretto (the fennel salami and the fresh ricotta made me want to finish the cathedral and dedicate the whole thing to them), we enter the Baptistery, which is unusually positioned underneath the Duomo at its rear, and towards the bottom of the hill the Duomo sits on. There are frescoes of the Lives of St Anthony and Christ here, although I have already been sufficiently spoilt by the Ghirlandaio in San Gim to realise that these are not quite Champions League quality (the St Anthony is the better of the two).
What does impress are the polychrome marble patterns in the floor, an appetiser for the Duomo, and the bronze reliefs placed around the baptismal font, including an energetic Donatello of Herod’s Feast where the diners seem genuinely upset by the head of John the Baptist, covering their faces and apparently leaping back from their positions.
Having had a bit of fun, the rest of the afternoon is devoted to safety-first tactics of dousing all our luggage in boiling water and steam ironing every single piece of clothing. It’s raining when we head back out for dinner, and treat ourselves to the old-school ristorante experience at Taverna di Cecco; wild boar pici and chicken in white wine for me, caprese and vitello tonato for la signora. Pici are the local pasta, and not so different from udon noodles. We ask for grappa at the end and the waiter walks out, then returns with three posh bottles from the local store. One bottle is plonked on our table, but we are too timid to keep helping ourselves.
Sunday morning is spent in the Palazzo Pubblico, the enormous Gothic building that takes up one side of the Campo, and from which the Council of Nine ran the republic in Siena’s golden age. The first room, unexpectedly, is the Sala del Risorgimento, with frescoes showing the triumphs of Garibaldi, Cavour & co. You have to see the rest of the rooms, and pass through here on the way back out, just to appreciated how poor these C19th frescoes are. The next room is much more like it, with Spinello Aretino frescoes telling the convoluted story of a feud and reconciliation between an Emperor and a Sienese Pope (Alexander III) who fled to Venice in the disguise of a pilgrim, highlight of which is a startling depiction of a naval battle.
The next hall has mannerist ceiling frescoes by Beccafumi, whose subject matter concerns stories from Republican Rome and Athens whose names are only dimly familiar to me. The point being made is to link Siena to the purer form of government that existed between King and Emperor in ancient Rome; while the Council of Nine ruled the Sienese state had no Caesar, no Nero, no Napoleon. Following this we get the Antechapel and the Chapel, where every inch of wall has been painted with large tracts of text and images of Genghis Khan-looking warriors.
The Chapel leads to the Sala del Mappamondo, whose centrepiece is another vast Maestà, this time by Simone Martini. All the saints gather under a piece of drapery as is customary, but the show-stealer is the Virgin’s dress, with folds in the intricate gold-laced pattern. Although seven centuries separate them, it could pass for something from Gustav Klimt. In this context it seems rather daring that the shape of her legs is visible. The wall opposite has a pleasing equestrian of the condottiere Guidoriccio da Folignano, riding out from one town to another, both rider and horse in matching livery.
The Sala dei Nove contains the signature frescoes most readily identified with Siena; Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good & Bad Government from 1338. The walls showing Bad Government have sadly suffered significant damage but we can still see Tyranny sitting on the throne, a boss-eyed, horned beast with a supporting cast who are all on the make. Good Government, as you might expect, is presided over by Peace, Justice, Wisdom and that whole great bunch of lads.
The panoramic views on the longer walls show the city and the fields beyond, looking much like they still do today, and the Good countryside is like a Breughel, with people tending to the fields, hunting, or coming and going on the road to the city walls. The city itself is a hive of commerece, culture and general activity. We see construction workers putting up new palazzi, people listening to preachers, shoppers at the market and even ladies dancing.
The Bad city has fallen through neglect to become the archetypal den of iniquity, with soldiers and crooks lurking around every corner. Buildings are crumbling, the fields have been returned to the wild, and the countryside is scattered with marauding armies and burning houses. What is galling about the frescoes is that they proved to be highly prophetic. Within a few years of Lorenzetti having completed the work, he had died in the Black Death which brought down democratic government in Siena, killed half its people and signalled the effective end of the whole show, although the Republic staggered on in name until 1555.
There are one or two smaller rooms with bits and bobs, including a miniature painting of San Bernardino preaching in the Campo, and a steep staircase leads to a loggia looking out on the southern extremities of Siena. Behind the Palazzo is Piazza del Mercato, and whilst Siena continues along a high ridge on either side, the city comes to an abrupt halt behind the market square with a deep and verdant valley.
After lunch and a fantastic pistachio/tiramisu gelato from the classic cafe Nannini, in the afternoon we visited Santa Maria della Scala, an old hospital for pilgrims to Rome that sits facing the Duomo and was still used as the city hospital into the 1990s. This is now a museum that mixes and matches modern abstract stuff with a C19th collection and the medieval components of the building complex, in a way that I thought a bit too pleased with itself, given that the new did not stand up to the old. There are some inexplicable objects (that turn out to belong to a ‘museum for children’) and nice Alma-Tademaish paintings of starving citizens during the last days of the beseiged republic, and of Nero’s court watching the burning of Rome.
Eventually we find the chief attraction, the Sala dei Pellegrini and its wonderful fresco cycle showing the history of the hospital. Incredibly enough, the hall was still a functioning hospital ward as late as 1995. The panels are by a variety of artists although most were painted by Domenico di Bartolo.
We see the mythic dream of the founder’s mother that is supposed to have predicted the building’s foundation, followed by its being built, the Pope conferring independence on the institution, and a succession of wonderful crowd scenes, all entirely secular in theme and all offering a broad tapestry of cosmopolitan life in a major medieval city.
The panel in which the sick receive treatment is a particular eye-opener. Surgeons and doctors stand over the patient and discuss what is to be done. One man about to receive surgery confesses to a bored-looking friar whilst a cat and dog fight at the foot of the bed. You wouldn’t fancy your chances much.
Museum staff direct us downstairs, where the giant basement halls that served as the haylofts are now an incomprehensible maze of modern rubbish, holy bones and other relics, and eroded panels from Jacopo della Quercia’s fountain in the Campo next to models for the C19th replacements that now stand in their place.
Down here there is also a creepily atmospheric oratory belonging to “the brotherhood of Saint Catherine of the Night”, thus named because St Catherine of Siena came here to pray in between sessions of tending to the sick. Catherine was the original Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells; as a young girl she became a prolific letter writer who admonished all the European heads of state for their failings. The emperors and kings took her advice with surprisingly good humour and she is credited with bringing the Popes back from Avignon. Note the ropes for self-flagellation, apparently still in use.
You could spent hours down here, and there were entire sections we skipped, but much of it looked awfully esoteric. Back on the ground floor is the hospital’s main church, the Annunziata, with a good Donatello-esque bronze of Christ Arisen over the altar, and an anteroom with lively frescoes that show Christ smiting people with holy fire.
We refuel at our new landlady’s pub, which has a small terrace looking onto Piazza del Campo, and are treated to a ceremonial march by one of Siena’s contrade. The city is split into 17 districts, and 10 of each are drawn to take part in the palio every July & August, a rough-and-tumble horse race around the Campo that has been going for centuries and is a sort of Italian Grand National. A 2015 documentary shows the Palio to have a byzantine set of rules; jockeys are given transfer budgets as large as those of lower-league English football clubs with which to bribe one another, and the fastest horses are never chosen to enter the race for fear that one contrada might gain advantage over its rival. Some attribute Siena’s low crime rate to the social glue of the contrade; membership is conferred by birthplace and each team has its own church, museum, social club and baptisms. I don’t know if they all periodically march through the Campo, or if the winner gets bragging rights, but they sang their song, beat their drums, did a lap and then disappeared back where they came from. In terms of pageantry and musicianship, it wasn’t quite up to the Twelfth, but presumably the neighbourhoods have a smaller pool of ‘talent’. Sunday night is spent resting at the flat and attempting to translate Masterchef Italia for my girlfriend. When the talking heads appear their name/job title briefly flash up on the screen, and she asks what the ‘disco’ thing is. It turns out that half the contestants are ‘disoccupato’.
Monday is the last full day, and we decide to brave the Duomo. Unfortunately it doesn’t open to visitors until 10:30am so there is no opportunity to beat the coach-trip rush. As we stand before the incredible Orvieto-style facade and contemplate the dozens of statues, the carved bronze doors, the gargoyles and lavish marbles, there are half a dozen people queuing at the door and we feel no need to stand in line. At 10:29 and 30 seconds, a tour guide appears out of nowhere and leads some 100 lanyard-wearers right up to the door with military precision.
As the people before us are stopped in their tracks by the first view of the stripey nave (described by one Grand Tourist as a “solemn zebra”), we make a beeline for what sounds like the most interesting part of the Duomo, the Piccolomini library, in the hope of getting five minutes on our own with the art. This room contained the books of Sienese Pope Pius II, and still has a 1502 Pinturicchio fresco cycle showing scenes from his life. Pius II was the classic humanist Pope, a sexually promiscuous writer of autobiography, travel writing and erotica who turned his hometown of Pienza into one of the key ‘planned cities’ of the Renaissance.
Pius II’s actual Papacy was something of a flop, but the same cannot be said of these frescoes. Pinturicchio studied under Perugino and his work has the sheer beauty, feminine delicacy and vibrancy of colour as Raphael. We first see Pius as a Bishop’s assistant at Basel, followed by his travelling to Scotland as an ambassador to the Scottish king. This is probably the Renaissance version of a Chelsea academy player being loaned out to Hartlepool in the hope of toughening him up. To a C15th Italian, going to Scotland must have felt like falling off the face of the earth, but Pinturicchio manages to conjure up a not unflattering fantasy landscape of lochs and rude fortifications.
In later scenes Pius is made Poet Laureate by the Emperor. marries the Emperor, becomes Bishop, Cardinal and Pope, calls for a new crusade to retake Constantinople, makes Catherine of Siena a saint (his one indisputable success as Pope), and dies at Ancona with Europe dragging its heels and making excuses over the aborted crusade.
Each one is a wonderful crowd scene filled with stunning costumes, animals and city scapes. Every face is a distinct personality that seems to carry its own thoughts. They are particularly good at pretty louche boys lounging around in stockings, whilst Pius II himself starts out as a long-haired, dandyish youth and ends up as a wizened, dying old man. The cities include Siena, sitting in the background as the Emperor meets his Portuguese bride, and minus its industrial port, even the historic core of nasty old Ancona is identifiable.
Even if frescoes are not your thing, Siena Duomo still contains so much great stuff that there is more than the brain can really take in; don’t even try to grapple with the concept that the giant nave would have been a transept in the expanded version. It is very crowded, but so stunning that you don’t mind.
The Pisano pulpit is covered in scaffolding as they restore it, and the Bernini chapel is closed off for the poor sods that want to come in for prayer, but the visitor more than gets their money’s worth. There are clever panels of wooden marquetry like those in the studiolo of Urbino, the humbug-striped columns everywhere, an alarming gallery of Pope’s heads running the entire length of the clerestory and all staring down upon you like death masks, and some fabulous bronze angels by Beccafumi around the choir, looking like slightly dishevelled butlers.
There is a rugged Donatello bronze of John the Baptist, and four small statues by Michelangelo from a job that he abandoned once given the gig of making Florence’s David.
The most unusual feature, however (and one that is only uncovered for a few weeks each year, so we are in luck) is the extraordinary marble floor, which is covered with sgrafitto-type decorations. The artists would drill holes or lines into the marble, and fill them with pitch. The earliest ones look like simple Hergé-style line drawings, whilst the later ones are far more ambitious and move into vast polychrome set pieces.
Althogh I don’t like his mannerist paintings so much, many of the best pieces are by Beccafumi. They dazzle, they have the motion and energy of pencil drawings; there is substance and action, not at all what one would ever expect from a marble floor.
As a small digestif, we go into the crypt after the Duomo. This has only recently been rediscovered and its entrance is near the baptistery. It gets very few visitors (most people seem to get a Duomo-only ticket) but is worth seeing for some very old wall frescoes showing the Life of Jesus. It feels like an unlikely survivor from Ancient Rome, with columns and capitals painted all kinds of different colours.
After lunch, we walk out past the football stadium to get to the Medici Fortress on the edge of town, built by the Florentines to keep their old enemy in check after the conquest of Siena, and converted into a public park in the 30s. On top of the thick walls and ramparts there are now attractive, tree-lined promenades and even an outdoor gym with great views onto the Sienese hills. It’s cheering to see an old instrument of oppression reconfigured to give the townspeople pleasure.
The views are fantastic and don’t even come at the end of a long, punishing climb; all this is around five minutes away and a quite gentle stroll.
On the way back we have a quick look at the enormous, and fairly austere, San Domenico cathedral. Most of the space is bare, the only colour provided by palio flags, but there is a side chapel containing the mummified head of Catherine of Siena surrounded by Sodoma frescoes.
Having seen the Dominicans it would be rude to leave out the Franciscans, and the one remaning sight on our Duomo combined ticket is the Oratory of San Bernardino (this is on the other side of town, and I’m sure most people omit it). San Bernardino was a tireless preacher who travelled all over Italy and is the patron saint of Siena, although he sounds like a quite nasty piece of work who was rather too preoccupied by the gays & the Jews. He asked families, factions and feuding cities to replace their own coats-of-arms with the IHS monogram of his design, representing the initials of Christ in Greek, and to this day the monogram is prominent on the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico. The Oratory itself has nice miniature frescoes of his life in the entrance hall around a blue starry sky ceiling. Upstairs are a few rooms with religious paintings and altarpieces that vary from the great to the mediocre.
The main attraction is a beautiful wood-panelled main hall with a Life of the Virgin cycle by Beccafumi, Sodoma and other mannerists. I don’t like the style of painting so much, especially after a morning spent with Pinturicchio, but some of the Beccafumi do have an agitated style of short brush strokes that put me in mind of Tintoretto. We have a nosy around the San Francesco church next door as well, which is another huge bare barn of a church with lots of nuns pottering around.
On the last evening we fancy having some aperitivo, but it’s a Monday night and there doesn’t seem to be anything doing bar-wise. We end up returning to Pretto for some cheese, salami and sottolio from their wonderful menu, and since every shop in Siena has been pushing a wine called Brunello di Montalcino I slake my curiosity by splashing out on an €8 glass. The wine has a definite brownish hue, and is intense and slightly bitter, almost verging on the taste of a sherry. It takes three years to produce and stays in the barrel for two. So now I know… after an early night, we spend our last morning in Siena soaking up some rays in the Campo, before putting together all the luggage and heading off for our next adventure.